This is the story of how two iconic Washington state institutions are finally united.
In August, a huge 6-foot by 8-foot painting by legendary Yakama artist Leo Adams took its place in the ballroom of the Washington State Governor’s Mansion in Olympia. The story of how this alliance came to be is one of the truly wonderful, unexpected and serendipitous results of the COVID pandemic.
This section of Yakima Magazine is usually concerned with “dwellings” and they don’t come on a much larger scale or with a more interesting history than the mansion itself.
And here begins our tale.
After declaring statehood on November 11, 1889, Washington took a rather casual approach to the living quarters of its chief executive. We expected our governor to bring his family to Olympia and live there for his entire term. Where this family lived was up to them.
Finally, in 1907, the legislature appropriated $35,000 for the construction of a home for the governor, to be completed by June 1, 1909. The building opened ahead of schedule in January 1909.
The 19-room Georgian Revival-style mansion was designed by the architectural firm of Russell and Babcock of Tacoma and is the oldest building on the Capitol campus. The Governor’s Mansion Foundation (GMF), an all-volunteer, non-profit, non-partisan organization that provided most of the information for this material, reports that from the beginning the mansion was considered necessary to serve both as a “community event space and as a private residence.”
In addition, GMF confirms that considerable effort has been made to “stay local” in the building’s original materials. Bricks come from Seattle, lime from the San Juan Islands, sandstone from Tenino and wood shingles from Olympia. The house was furnished (mostly by Frederick and Nelson), with an additional $15,000 from the Legislature.
As luck would have it, GMF reports that from the start the building did not “age gracefully,” as they put it. Various governors complained about the “gutters, roof, peeling paint and inadequate furnishings.”
The situation became dire enough that in the 1960s the legislature seriously considered demolishing the building. Although this end result was avoided, things continued to deteriorate to such an extent that by 1970 something clearly had to be done.
Then-manager Dan Evans and his wife, Nancy Bell Evans, worked with the Legislature to commit to a complete “major renovation of the house: new heating, new plumbing, new electrical, new insulation and a commercial-sized kitchen,” completed in the 70- those years.
Beyond the physical structure, by this time the mansion had become a “mishmash” of furniture used by the previous residents. First Lady Nancy Evans’ goal was to truly complete the restoration, ensuring that the mansion is a home that is both elegant and well-appointed, as well as capable of serving as host to any event.
Of course, a key part of ‘furnishing’ any home is selecting and displaying the right art, and this leads to the second part of our story.
At the outset of the restoration work, it was recognized by all concerned that the need to select, fund and display appropriate art would be critical. To this end, Nancy Belle Evans, along with other interested residents, founded the Governor’s Mansion Foundation, which undertook the task of furnishing the mansion at no cost to the public.
The foundation continues to own and maintain most of the furnishings in the common areas of the house. They also acquired and continue to maintain the estate’s fine art collection and run free public tours throughout the year. One of the most notable works of art on display at the mansion is a portrait of George Washington by Rembrandt Peale (1778-1860), one of the last artists to paint Washington from life. The porthole portrait was acquired by GMF through private funds in 1999.
The early selection philosophy focused on art from the 1880s to 1930s. This approach has evolved over time and with the arrival of COVID in 2020. The GMF Arts Committee is working to create an acquisition plan that reflects more full of the peoples and cultures of Washington.
In that spirit, four local Yakima County foundation trustees, John Bowle, Reisha Cosby, Cheri Hanses and Christine Sims, considered possible recommendations. Under Cheri’s enthusiastic guidance, it quickly became clear that Leo Adams was the perfect choice.
Internationally recognized as an artist, designer, interpreter of the land that surrounds him and an elder of the Yakama Nation, Adams has demonstrated an artistic genius since childhood. The colors and shapes included in his work are often said to capture the essence of Central Washington.
He previously exhibited at the Governor’s Mansion, and the GMF commissioned his new work as part of their 50th anniversary in 2022. His selection in the current round of acquisitions served to place his work in the permanent collection.
Once the order was offered and accepted, the late summer delivery created the ideal scenario. This will coincide with the celebration of Leo’s 80th birthday in November, Native American Heritage Month (also in November) and the 50th anniversary of the Governor’s Mansion Foundation itself. The trifecta!
However, there are still a few things to finish before the celebration. Funds were raised to support the project. John Bowle reported to me that the Yakima County Trustees were both pleased and gratified by the generous initial support given by Central Washington to the project.
And what about the artist himself? Really happy. During a recent visit, Adams told me he loves creating the piece he calls “Reservation Viewpoint.” The task was to focus both on the land on which the Yakama have lived since ancient times and on elements of the daily life of the Yakama people.
Adams calls the end result “Still life superimposed on landscape.” The painting includes baskets of berries, blankets, stones, plants and a “parfleche,” a type of painted leather box that Leo calls Louis Vuitton’s element of Yakama luggage. The dimensions of the painting were dictated early on in part by the wall space above the grand piano in the mansion’s ballroom.
Such is art.
And such is the harmony in combining a once-in-a-generation artist and a unique residence representing all the people of our state. A happy ending indeed.
To learn more about the Governor’ Mansion Foundation, the mansion’s history and how to tour the mansion, visit wagovmansion.org.